Chapter One

 

 

CADE MARTIN made it a rule to keep his head down, figuratively and literally. It was how he’d survived up to that point, and he figured it would keep working at least a little longer.

So when he heard the laughter and the surge of noise as a group of new arrivals joined the cafeteria line, he didn’t really pay any attention. He was working the sandwich bar, slapping vegetables and cold cuts onto whatever bread the customer requested, following their instructions about condiments and seasonings. It was actually Cade’s least favorite job, the one that required the most interaction with the customers, but most of the other staff were older and not too quick, so he was assigned to sandwiches whenever the line got long.

Which it currently was. “White, wheat, multigrain, or cheese?” he asked without looking up.

There was a longer pause than there should have been, and Cade cast his eyes briefly toward the customer. Oh. The golden boy. The one who always wanted to smile and chat, as if there was something interesting to say about sandwich toppings, and as if there wasn’t a long line of students behind him. “What kind of bread?” Cade prompted.

“What do you recommend?”

Cade didn’t have time for this. He grabbed two slices of cheese bread and slapped them on the cutting board. The golden boy usually wanted cheese bread. “What would you like on it?”

The guy frowned for just a moment, then said, “What’s good today?”

“It’s mass-produced. It’s the same every day.” And in case that sounded like he was a less than enthusiastic promoter of his employer’s fine products, he added, “It’s all good. Every day.”

“That’s pretty reassuring, isn’t it? A little consistency in a world that sometimes seems to change every time you blink?”

“There’s a line behind you, sir. What would you like on your sandwich?”

“I can’t decide how I feel about being called ‘sir’,” the guy tried. “Is it a sign of respect and your focus on providing good customer service, or is it actually kind of distancing, a way to emphasize a lack of friendliness?”

“Maybe both,” Cade said. “You’re heading for ham and cheese. If that’s what you want, keep talking. If you want something else, let me know.”

The guy sighed. “Turkey,” he said, as if having to speak his order was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the world. “And bacon. Havarti, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise. Salt and pepper. Pickle on the side, one of those big dills. Please.”

Cade got to work. He kept his head down, his eyes focused on the sandwich bar, but his ears were harder to direct.

“You’re back working here this year, huh?” the golden boy asked. “Well, obviously you are. Stupid question. I meant I remember you from last year. But we never really talked much. Never got to know each other.”

Cade lifted his gaze for a quick, daring moment. “Did you get to know the rest of the cafeteria staff?” he asked scornfully.

But the golden boy smiled and nodded. “Most of them. Daria’s a bit like you—she’s pretty quiet. I know she’s got a grandson who plays guitar. That’s about it. But Mary and Louisa and Ron?” He grinned at the people behind the counter, and Cade knew without looking that they’d be smiling back. “I know them. But you? If you weren’t wearing that tag, I wouldn’t even know your name.”

“Look good?” Cade asked pointedly.

The guy seemed a little surprised, but then he grinned and nodded. “Yeah, you look good. I mean, the apron’s not exactly flattering—”

“The sandwich. Does the sandwich look good?”

The guy glanced down at it. “Oh. Yeah, sure. I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

The guy looked like he was maybe going to say a little more, but instead he turned to the girl behind him in line, shrugged philosophically, and slid his cafeteria tray further along the line. “See you later, Cade,” he said as he went.

The girl was tall and thin and blonde, with a cheerful smile that showed perfect white teeth. “Hi! I’m Andrea.”

“What kind of bread would you like?”

“Multigrain, please. And then a veggie sandwich. Every veggie. No cheese, no condiments.” Cade could tell she was smiling by the sound of her voice, but he wasn’t looking at her as he began assembling her sandwich.

“Sorry if Aiden was a bit annoying. He’s pathological, I swear. He needs to be friends with everybody.”

“No problem.”

“I guess I’m not that much better,” she said. “I mean, there are certain gender issues. It wouldn’t be safe for me to introduce myself to total strangers the way Aiden does. But you’re not a stranger, right?”

“Look good?” Cade asked. And before there was room for another misunderstanding, he pointed a glove-covered finger directly at her sandwich.

“Looks delicious. And I’d definitely like a kosher dill, please.”

Cade handed the food over, but Andrea didn’t slide her tray along. Instead, she pulled out a folded sheet of cardstock and passed it across the counter toward him. “Aiden’s frat and my sorority are having a party together this Friday. It’s not fancy or anything, but it’s not a huge public bash. Invitation only.” She nodded toward the cardstock, making it clear what it was. “If you wanted to come, that’d be great. We’d both like to get to know you better.”

“I’m busy Friday,” Cade lied. “You should keep the invitation for someone who can go.”

But apparently Cade wasn’t going to get out of things quite that easily. Because Louisa was on the hot lunch station and nobody seemed to be too interested in whatever slop she was serving, so she’d been listening in on Cade’s interactions. Now she stepped forward and plucked the invitation off the counter.

“Busy doing what?” she asked scornfully. “Studying?” She looked over at Andrea and shook her head. “He’s too serious! Always working or studying, never having fun!”

“Louisa, how the hell would you know what I’m doing when I’m not here?” But all this was distracting Cade from his real job, which was making sandwiches as quickly and efficiently as he could. He leaned to the side so he could see around Andrea and said, “What kind of bread?”

“Bro, we all came in together,” the guy said. “We’re all Greeks. There’s no hurry.”

Cade didn’t have time for this crap. “So, what is this? Some hazing thing? Some dare? You’re picking random people from all over campus and trying to convince them to go to your thing? And then what happens when we get there?”

“We socialize!” Andrea said, her eyes wide. “We get to know you!”

“Why?” Cade demanded.

No one answered right away, but finally the guy behind Andrea shrugged, and for the first time Cade saw one of them look a little uncomfortable. “It’s one of our initiatives for the year. We want to broaden our horizons. Get to know people we wouldn’t ordinarily know. So we look around for people who seem cool, but, you know. Who aren’t really a part of the Purdue scene.”

“And what is it about me that makes you think I ‘seem cool’?” Cade asked. He waited a moment for an answer, then shook his head and said, “What kind of bread do you want?”

The guy sighed as Andrea slid off to the side. “White,” he said. “Please.”

Cade realized that the original golden boy hadn’t gone far along the counter. He was standing there in front of the self-serve dessert bar, watching everything, and Cade didn’t want to turn to see the expression on his face. He finally got shuffled along as Cade worked his way through the orders of the rest of the Greek crowd.

The whole thing was a bit awkward, all the more so when the last guy in the group made his way up to the counter and Cade glanced up to realize he wasn’t a stranger. Suddenly it all made a bit more sense. “Oh,” he said. “Hi.”

Paul, Cade’s freshman-year roommate, nodded back. “Hi.” He tried a bright smile. “Still determined to be antisocial, huh?”

“What kind of bread do you want?”

“There’s no one behind me in line, Cade. Can you not take a second to talk?”

“About what? Me being antisocial? You want me to be more social about my antisocialness?”

“Why don’t you come to the party on Friday? It’s low-key, not a big deal at all.”

“That’s why I don’t want to come. I really prefer high-key activities.”

“Oh, yeah, I noticed that about you.” Paul shook his head, then leaned in a little. “Did you know I applied three times to get a new roomie last year?”

No. Cade hadn’t known that. He’d never thought they were best friends or anything, but he hadn’t known Paul had actually tried to get out. “I guess it didn’t work.”

“They said that having a roommate who studied too much wasn’t grounds for a room change.”

“Oh. Do you want a sandwich?”

But Paul just glanced over his shoulder to be sure no line was forming, then added, “Do you know everyone on the floor called you the Monk?”

“Because I wore that hoodie too much,” Cade said quietly. He hadn’t known everyone called him that, but he’d heard the name.

“Because you acted like you’d taken a vow of silence! I mean, yeah, the hoodie didn’t help, but come on, Cade! This is college! You’re supposed to be out there partying, meeting people. Having fun, getting laid….”

“I guess I’m doing it wrong. Thanks for clearing that up for me.” Cade smiled as if he’d had a brilliant idea. “Hey! I just happen to have a bunch of bread and cold cuts and stuff laid out here. How ’bout I make you a sandwich, for old times’ sake?”

“You’re top of the class in honors engineering,” Paul said. “I get it—that’s hard to do. You need to work a lot. But you can take one night off, can’t you?”

Cade nodded. He hadn’t realized that Paul’s little revelations had stung, but something seemed to have kicked his temper up a notch. “Sure. I need to work hard, but I could take one night off, if I wanted to.” He smiled sweetly. “But if I did, I’d spend the time doing something I actually wanted to do. I wouldn’t waste it hanging around with a bunch of loser frat boys so insecure that they have to actually join a friendship club and pay hefty dues just to be sure they aren’t ever alone long enough to realize how pathetic they are.” Cade stepped back from the counter a little, and said, “Last call on the sandwich. If you don’t want one, I have other stuff I should be doing.”

Paul’s face was red. “You’re pretty fucking mouthy for a—”

“Paul.” The voice wasn’t loud, but there was an authority to it that made both Paul and Cade turn to find the source. It was Aiden, the original golden boy, still holding his tray, looking back at them from near the cash registers. “It’s done. We asked him, but he’s not interested. It’s kind of against the whole point of the night if we have to bully people into coming.”

“Did you hear what he said about frats?” Paul whined. “I am so tired of hearing that shit!”

“So stop talking to him,” Aiden suggested levelly. “It’s not like he’s chasing you down to say it. Not like you’re stuck behind a counter at work just trying to make sandwiches and he’s standing there bugging you about something.”

Paul gave them both a disgusted look, then stalked off to join his friends at the tables.

Cade wasn’t sure if he was happy or sad that the golden boy stayed behind. No, he told himself. He was neither. Sure, he’d noticed the guy before. It was hard not to notice someone like that, someone who practically glowed with beauty and confidence and serene, gentle good nature. But noticing wasn’t the same as caring. If the golden boy stayed or went, it was all the same to Cade.

So there was no reason to feel nervous when Aiden slowly approached, looking around to make sure there was no line before coming right to the counter. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into all this. I was trying to… I don’t know. It made sense at the time. Trying to show people that frats aren’t what you think they are. Aren’t all about buying friends and partying and whatever. We end up hanging out with fellow Greeks all the time, and I thought….” He stopped talking and shook his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter what I thought. I’m sorry I dragged you into it.”

“Not you,” Cade said, trying to be fair. “I mean, maybe it was your general idea. But dragging me into it—that was Paul, right?”

“No,” Aiden said slowly. “It was me. I’d seen you, and I’d thought….” He made a face that turned into a rueful grin. “Well, we’ve already established that my brain isn’t as functional as it should be. So never mind what I thought. But I was the one who suggested you. Paul said he knew you and he gave us a bit of background—I like the Monk thing, makes you sound like a superhero—but it was me who put your name on the invitation list. Sorry.”

Cade needed some time to digest that bit of information. “Are you inviting everyone the same way? Like, the full team approach? ’Cause it’s not my business, but I don’t really think that’s going to work for you.”

“So if I’d asked you differently, you might have come?” Aiden’s voice was soft, his gaze too direct for a casual conversation.

Cade felt something stir inside him, a butterfly of excited anticipation stretching its wings and wondering whether to fly. He stomped on that butterfly with a heavy mental boot. “No,” he said firmly. “I wouldn’t have.”

New customers arrived then, complaining about the class they’d come from as they collected their trays, and Aiden stepped back out of the way. He seemed reluctant to leave, but Cade didn’t have the energy to try to make the guy feel better about having a bad plan for helping the socially uninterested. He was too busy making sandwiches.

Busy. And that was the way he liked it. He didn’t notice when Aiden left and went to sit at his table, didn’t watch him eat, and didn’t see him pause at the doorway and look back toward the counter as if hoping to wave good-bye. No. Cade didn’t see any of that. He refused to. He kept himself busy at his sandwich station, and when his shift was finished, he lifted his apron over his head, grabbed his knapsack, and headed for class.

It wasn’t until he was in the lecture hall and pulled his laptop out that he noticed the sheet of folded cardboard wedged into his bag. Louisa had obviously felt he needed a chance to reconsider his decision.

You’re invited to a casual evening for meeting new friends and exploring new interests, Cade read. If he squinted a little, he could make it sound almost kinky. But while he was sure the frat boys had developed their own brands of debauchery, he doubted very much that they announced their intentions on cardstock invitations. No, this was… well, he had no idea what it was, and he wasn’t going to find out. He tossed the invitation onto the desk next to him. He’d put it in the recycling bin on his way out.

“I heard about this!” Estelle said excitedly as she slipped into the seat beside him, grabbing the card. “A top frat and a top sorority, reaching out to the campus’s nerds. You got an invitation?” She was a fellow honors engineering student, the only serious challenge he had to his place at the top of the class. They’d managed to become friends despite the potential for competitiveness. Cade wasn’t there to beat other students, just to do the best he could, and he supposed Estelle felt the same way.

But now, as she held the invitation almost reverently before her, Cade grinned. “You should go. I’ll be at the library studying, but I’m sure it’s a good idea for you to go chase cute frat boys instead.”

I’m multifaceted,” Estelle said, patting the side of her head, as if her black hair were arranged in a sophisticated bob instead of a long ponytail. “I can excel academically and socially.”

“Go for it, then.”

Estelle frowned and suspiciously turned the sheet over. “This is legit? Like, it’s a real invitation? And you seriously don’t want to go?”

“Why do you want to go?” Cade asked, genuinely curious.

“Uh, you already said it—cute frat boys!” She smiled and ran her fingers sensuously over the cardboard. “Rich and fit, and not too bright.”

Cade snorted. Yeah, that sounded about right. “I think it’s legit,” he said. He knew it was stupid to be too trusting, but he really couldn’t imagine the golden boy—Aiden—couldn’t imagine Aiden doing anything underhanded. “And I don’t see my name on the invitation anywhere. I’m not going to use it, so if you want to….”

“Are you sure?” She peered at him curiously. “You don’t want to go check it out, at least? I mean, I know the sorority girls aren’t your style, and maybe the frat boys aren’t either, but there’s going to be other people there. Maybe someone interesting?”

“I’m not going,” Cade said. “It’s not my thing. If you want to use it, go ahead.”

The professor stepped up to the lectern then and Cade called up the notes he’d taken on the readings, then directed his attention to the front of the room. He was at school to learn, not to meet people. He had his priorities straight.

He saw Estelle run her fingers over the invitation and then tuck it greedily, almost guiltily, into her backpack. That was good. Let Estelle enjoy herself. Let her get distracted. He would stay on task.

He laid his fingers on the laptop keyboard and made himself listen to the professor’s words. He didn’t think about the golden boy and his sweet, honest smile. And he absolutely didn’t wonder how that smile would change when Estelle showed up at the party instead of Cade.